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Sports >  Outdoors

Sides react to drastic changes to Columbia River fisheries

A group of young anglers shows off its salmon catch on the Wind River in Washington. (Associated Press)
A group of young anglers shows off its salmon catch on the Wind River in Washington. (Associated Press)
Allen Thomas Vancouver (Wash.) Columbian

At times, change has come to Columbia River fisheries at a glacial pace.

But the restructuring of the lower Columbia commercial and sport fisheries under way is more like an avalanche – wide and fast – and no one quite knows what the landscape will look like when it’s finished.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber sent letters to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in mid-August directing the panel to boost hatchery salmon production in off-channel areas then transition the gillnet fishery to these areas.

Sport fishing would be the priority in the mainstem lower Columbia.

The emphasis likely would be a boon to sport salmon fisheries in the upper Columbia regions of Eastern Washington.

However, the Tri-State Steelheaders are trying to convince Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioners to take advantage of this process to help give East Side anglers a more equitable portion of the salmon harvest, especially for spring chinook.

East Side anglers buy 37 percent of the Columbia River salmon-steelhead endorsement licenses yet they catch only 12 percent of the fish, said Chris Hyland of Walla Walla, a member of the group.

Kitzhaber’s move was a reaction to Measure 81 on Oregon’s November ballot. The measure would prohibit gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon inland waters and the governor said his plan is a better alternative.

Washington is participating with Oregon in developing a possible new fisheries regime, but is not bound by the Kitzhaber vision.

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said recently that “It felt somewhat like a shotgun wedding.”

The Washington and Oregon commissions each appointed three members to serve as the Columbia River Fishery Management Workgroup. The workgroup is trying to reach consensus on a huge overhaul of sport and commercial fishing in the lower Columbia – and have it done before the end of 2012.

The first meeting of the workgroup was Sept. 21 in Olympia. The most recent meeting was Oct. 18 in Portland.

Ed Bowles, fish division administrator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, laid out some management strategies for 2013 and beyond at the recent workgroup meeting.

Strategies for the next four years would continue to allow gillnets in the lower Columbia while salmon production in off-channel areas is being enhanced, said Ed Bowles, fish division administrator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bowles outlined the following highlights by salmon type for 2013-16:

• Spring chinook – Transition the gillnetters from the main lower Columbia to the off-channel areas by 2017. The sport share, now at 60 percent, would increase to 70 percent through 2016 and to 80 percent beginning in 2017.

• Summer chinook – The 50-50 sharing between the commercials and sports would change to 70 percent sport and 30 percent commercial in 2013 and 80-20 in 2015. Washington’s plan ends commercial catch of summer chinook beginning in 2017.

• Fall chinook – This is much more complicated, but would change the sport- commercial shares of tules from about 50-50 to as much as 70 percent sport in 2013-16 and as much as 80 percent in 2017.

• Sockeye – Sportsmen would get 70 percent of incidental-take compared to 50 percent now. If the federal fishery agency liberalizes the allowable take of sockeye, an increase of commercial harvest might occur.

Washington’s three commissioners want pilot beach seine and purse seine fisheries next fall and gillnets phased out of the main stem by 2016.

• Coho – Commercial fishing would be allowed with gillnets plus pilot tangle nets, purse seines and beach seines through 2015 under the Washington plan. Gillnets would be eliminated beginning in 2016. Lots of stakeholders in the Columbia River fisheries got to state their position during the first meeting. Following are some examples.

There was no shortage of comments at the eight-hour Oct. 18 meeting. In short, the commercials don’t like the change and sportsmen mostly do. Here are a few of comments:

Robert Sudar, a fish buyer from Longview, Wash., said it is unfathomable to him that the states would take the gillnetters off the main stem for spring chinook. The commercial share already is small, caught in a couple of openers and would only extend sport fishing for two or three days, he said. “You’re giving us up for two or three days in the sport fishery,’” Sudar said.

Gary Douvia, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, explained the rationale for phasing the gillnetters off summer chinook salmon. The netters get about 3,200 summer chinook in two one-day openers in June, he said. When their allocation drops from 50 percent to 20 percent, the net fleet will be down to fishing only about four hours. There’s a bycatch issue with steelhead and sockeye in the river in June, with warm water temperatures not conducive to releasing fish, he added.

Jim Wells of Salmon For All, a commercial group, pointed out that new Chief Joseph Hatchery in the upper Columbia River is scheduled to start producing summer chinook soon. Summer chinook returns should double from around 80,000 to 160,000 with the new hatchery, yet all that benefit will be handed solely to sportsmen, Wells said. Wells also said when commercial fishermen agreed a few years ago to test alternative fishing methods such as purse seines and beach seines that the methods were supposed to be in addition to gillnets, not in place of them.

Greg Johnson, a commercial fishermen from Vancouver, said it would cost about $5,000 to buy a net suitable for fishing in the off-channel areas and $15,000 for a beach seine. The makeover of commercial fishing is a double whammy of increased equipment costs and less profitable opportunity, he said.

Jim Martin of Pure Fishing, a sport-fishing representative, said moving the commercials to the off-channel areas can boost lower Columbia spring chinook sport-fishing trips from almost 150,000 annually to almost 200,000 annually. Economic losses to the commercials of spring chinook and summer chinook can be compensated with fall chinook and, especially, with coho, he said. Late coho, which enter the lower Columbia in October, can be boosted and large numbers made available for commercial harvest.

Russell Bassett of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders said sportsmen already have compromised with the commercials by joining the Kitzhaber compromise and no longer campaigning for Measure 81.

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